Flood Control — Fatal flaws in Virginia’s Approach

Hampton Roads Federal Installations

by James C. Sherlock

It is hurricane season, if you had not noticed.

This is the first of a multi-part series of articles on flood control in Virginia.

This first one will provide a brief overview of where we stand in flood control planning and construction in the Commonwealth with an emphasis on Hampton Roads.

The next three will discuss the federal role, the Commonwealth role and the regional/local roles in more depth.

The development of a Virginia Coastal Resilience Master Plan is the responsibility of the Commonwealth’s Chief Resilience Officer, the Secretary of Natural Resources. So far, it looks like it.

The current path the Commonwealth has chosen has fatal flaws.  A discussion of those flaws follows.

First some background.

“Castles” and others

There are two major kinds of flood control projects, what I personally refer to as castles — my term for engineered flood defenses — and natural defenses.

Castles are necessary and appropriate for highly threatened, high-value areas.

All castles and natural defense projects exceeding $7 million in federal funding are subject to federal cost-benefit assessments. Those assessments are carried out by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE).

The National Capitol Region (NCR) is a large castle still building, but that is not a state initiative. Congress works in Washington and uses National Airport.

Pretty much everything else you have ever noticed about in flood control in Virginia is a small castle — a solution involving engineered structures planned and executed by USACE with a local nonfederal sponsor.

Prominent castles in Virginia

For reference, the most prominent flood control projects in service in Virginia are U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) projects, including

  • the Atlantic coastal seawall (storm surge barrier). The Virginia Beach boardwalk is on top of part of it;
  • the 100-yard wide Atlantic ocean beaches in Virginia Beach (designed to absorb storm surge before it reaches the seawall);
  • replenished Chesapeake Bay beaches in Norfolk and Virginia Beach;
  • Barriers, pumps and flood gates in Norfolk along Waterside Drive;
  • Large portions of the shoreline in Northern Virginia that have been hardened;
  • the Four-mile Run flood control project in Arlington and Alexandria;
    the Roanoke flood control project completed in 2012; and
  • the $143 million flood protection walls along the James River in the City of Richmond dedicated in 1994.

They are all castles.

Large castles

The nation requires some very large castles like the Hurricane and Storm Damage Risk Reduction System (HSDRRS) that protects Greater New Orleans and the one building on the northeast coast of Texas around Houston.

HSDRRS is perhaps the preeminent civil engineering project of this century. It just successfully protected  the parts of southern Louisiana inside the castle walls from flooding consequent to Hurricane Ida.

The next two areas from a national viewpoint that require massive castles are generally considered to be Miami and Hampton Roads, in no particular order.

Large, multi-jurisdictional castles require the state to serve as or designate the single non-federal sponsor. That entity must control multi-jurisdictional participation and funding decisions.

Or the federal government won’t participate.

That is exactly what the feds told Louisiana in the wake of Katrina.

Louisiana complied by creating a new state agency called the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority of Louisiana (CPRA), much to their subsequent benefit. Every state agency and local government had a voice inside of CPRA, but CPRA spoke with one voice to the federal government.

There were only two players and decision makers for HSDRRS, USACE and the state’s CPRA. It was completed in record time and it works.

Texas designated the Harris County Flood Control District (HCFCD) as the nonfederal sponsor for its own massive project. That flood district has been in existence since 1937, governed by Harris County Commissioners Court, and has its own taxing authority. Harris County has 4.7 million residents.  HCFCD’s 2015 budget was $155 million.

No similar authority with the resources to deal with the federal government on flood control projects exists in Virginia.

Virginia has chosen not to do it that way. Interesting, but fatal.

Hampton Roads

Until Virginia law changes, it is leaving Hampton Roads defenseless against major flooding without a competent nonfederal sponsor for flood control in this area.

Hampton Roads Planning District includes Isle of Wight, James City, Southampton, and York Counties and the Independent Cities of Chesapeake, Franklin, Hampton, Newport News, Norfolk, Poquoson, Portsmouth, Suffolk, Virginia Beach and Williamsburg.  Good luck.

There are many municipalities in Hampton Roads of greatly different sizes and wealth but no Houston to anchor it.  Each of the municipalities is of course run by politicians. Who are never going to accomplish something like two integrated flood control castles and a single budget for those two projects on their own.

They recently spent two years trying, sort of, to establish a single flood planning cooperative and failed.

The state will have to step up.  It currently does not plan to do so.

The DoD interests in flood control in Hampton Roads are so high that a proper framework for Virginia’s approach would mention leveraging that interest to get Congressional authorization and funding for that area.

It does not.

Virginia’s Fatal Flaws

The Commonwealth Flood Protection efforts are led, by Virginia law, by the Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR). DCR works for the Secretary of Natural Resources.

I use the term “led” loosely, because Virginia law only authorizes DCR to coordinate, not direct such efforts. The very large number of other state agencies and local jurisdictions with roles to play make that concept fanciful at best.

  1. Such coordination represents another series of miracles enshrined in state law. That is the first fatal flaw.Lack of centralized decision authority.
  2. DCR is a conservation agency without construction expertise, a second fatal flaw.
  3. DCR does not have experience dealing with USACE on major projects.
  4. Virginia law does not authorize DCR to be the nonfederal sponsor of flood control projects. Instead Virginia’s law centers the nonfederal sponsor responsibilities with localities. That is the fourth fatal flaw, at least relative to Hampton Roads. One is enough.

To punctuate the “series of miracles comment,” DCR lists the

“partners in this work, in addition to the numerous local governments and planning district commissions”:

    • Army Corp of Engineers
    • Commonwealth Center for Recurrent Flooding Resiliency
    • Department of Conservation and Recreation
    • Department of Emergency Management
    • Department of Housing and Community Development
    • National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)
    • National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)
    • The Nature Conservancy
    • U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
    • Virginia Coastal Policy Center (College of William and Mary)
    • Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS) Center for Coastal Resource Management
    • Virginia Marine Resources Commission
    • Virginia Sea Grant
    • Wetlands Watch

DCR will “coordinate” all of that when pigs fly.

The only state agency that has the capabilities and expertise to begin to fulfill the requirements of the job is VDOT, and that agency was not chosen for the role.  Under the current rules, they would not want it.

The Virginia Coastal Resilience Master Planning Framework

DCR nearly a year ago published a Virginia Coastal Resilience Master Planning Framework. That document was two years in the writing. We are talking about the framework for the plan, not the plan itself.

The Executive Summary of the Framework says that “more work is necessary to identify the suite of possible solutions to specific problems posed by coastal hazards.” It continues:

“Virginia needs to decide how to best integrate nature based or green infrastructure – including protection of floodways through strategic coastal relocation – with structural flood control, considering both the direct and indirect benefits. … These objectives will be accomplished in the Virginia Coastal Resilience Master Plan”.

Really? When I read the Framework itself — twice — there is no indication of that. The truth is that DCR did not in two years discover “how best to integrate” and never will. USACE will have to do that. It is what they do.

In that document and state law:

  • the state makes clear that it doesn’t want to be a nonfederal sponsor of federal flood control projects. Neither the state law nor the Framework uses the term nonfederal sponsor. It “focuses on” eight regions of the Commonwealth, organized by their Planning District/Regional Commissions. It never says what “focuses on” means;
  • Virginia law favors natural solutions, not engineered solutions. So does federal law, but federal law recognizes that natural solutions are insufficient in most cases for urban flood control in low lying areas. The state already has reason to know that castles will be required. USACE conducted a study of flood control in Norfolk and other coastal areas funded in a one-time federal appropriation for a study of the vulnerability of the North Atlantic Coast after Sandy. That study results require an extensive network of engineered solutions. That was for Norfolk alone. The federal and state governments both recognize that water knows no political boundaries;
  • the Framework declares large castles preemptively unaffordable without even a plan for which there can be a cost estimate; and
  • It reads:

    “Barrier islands, beaches, dunes, wetlands, coastal forests, and even oyster reefs and seagrass beds offer significant and quantifiable resilience benefits at a significantly lower cost than shoreline hardening. “

    True statement. Where they will work. They will not work without castles in Hampton Roads. And DCR knows it. But go to a baker and he’s going to try to sell you bread.

I will wait until another part of this series to discuss in detail the Framework ideas on financing.

Suffice it to say that section never addresses federal long-term financing of the state’s cash share of the costs. Or that the nonfederal share is nominally 35%.

Or that the nonfederal sponsor’s costs can include the value of lands, easements, rights-of-way, relocations, and dredged or excavated material disposal areas, not just cash and in-kind work.

Those facts are hiding in federal law. Who knew? Not DCR.

The framework does not feature the economic benefits, just the costs. Again, USACE models costs and benefits.

And, finally, state law designates the federal government as a potential partner, not the leader in these efforts. Cart before the horse.

It’s a Waters of the United States thing.

Elections have consequences, and Virginia’s fatal flaws in flood control are among them.

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15 responses to “Flood Control — Fatal flaws in Virginia’s Approach”

  1. Stephen Haner Avatar
    Stephen Haner

    No, see, you are missing the point. We build windmills for power and start using squirrels running on wheels to power our Fords and there will never be any more floods or hurricanes. Greta and Gore have promised and Northam believes Greta and Gore.

    The real reason to throw out the current crowd in Richmond is total incompetence, but again, I’m not sure it was being addressed better under previous governors. Problems are easy to ignore under they hit you like a brick, and then you call a news conference and blame climate change for what was really perfectly predictable weather.

    1. how_it_works Avatar

      Blame climate change for road flooding when the same road has been flooding for decades because someone didn’t think to build a bridge a little higher, or put a bigger culvert in.

      1. James C. Sherlock Avatar
        James C. Sherlock

        I believe in sea level rise and subsidence because they have been measured. But our worst hurricane in Hampton Roads in recorded history was in 1746 I believe. The worst one in modern times was in 1933. Hardly a new problem. But the stakes are much higher now.

        1. Nancy Naive Avatar
          Nancy Naive

          You can thank NC OBX for that. The US east coast is like a boxer leading with his chin. By the time a CAT 3+ works over the OBX, we get a tropical storm. It’ll take a left hook to get us.

          BTW, Ash Wednesday weren’t no slouch, if not a hurricane.

    2. James C. Sherlock Avatar
      James C. Sherlock

      Thanks, Steve. DCR screwed this up every way possible. And it really matters. Years have been lost. More to follow.

      1. Stephen Haner Avatar
        Stephen Haner

        People forget that a key accomplishment of Governor Warner (around 2006 I think) was to end a drought. He got all the credit, anyway. That very dry period sparked a flurry of attention to water supply issues, which eventually faded as I recall. This very human ability to ignore future risk has its evolutionary advantages, until it doesn’t. (See: Pandemics.)

        1. …and [very expensive] Regional Water Supply Plans gather dust on shelves throughout the Commonwealth…

          [obviously both the dust and the shelf are metaphorical in this new digital age]

  2. Nancy Naive Avatar
    Nancy Naive

    Lots of people talk about the weather but nobody does anything about it.

    1. Charles Dudley Warner or Mark Twain, depending upon who you ask. A preponderance of the [written] evidence gives the nod to Warner.

  3. […] Commonwealth, as described in yesterday’s column, is on the wrong track […]

  4. DJRippert Avatar

    “Large portions of the shoreline in Northern Virginia that have been hardened;”

    The shoreline of the Potomac River?

    Over the many years I’ve run every yard of the running / bike path from Mt Vernon into DC. The path runs along the Potomac between the GW Parkway and the river.

    I believe your statement but I can’t imagine where the shoreline has been hardened.

    South of Mt Vernon?

    Or … maybe in the city of Alexandria?

  5. “Barrier islands, beaches, dunes, wetlands, coastal forests, and even oyster reefs and seagrass beds offer significant and quantifiable resilience benefits at a significantly lower cost than shoreline hardening. “ Show the quantitative benefits for various energetic coastline regions. Not easily done as resilience is predominantly expressed in qualitative terms. The US Army Corps of Engineers has historically justified projects based on National ECONOMIC Development benefits. We need policy change to justify more politically favorable “resilient” alternatives over those that the economically preferred plan.

    1. sherlockj Avatar

      What you are asking for is a change to federal law, not a policy change.

  6. […] discussed in an earlier piece, recognize the primacy of the federal government in the process and stand up as the nonfederal […]

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